Our last destination while visiting Bogota was Zipaquira, 50 km north of the capital, one of the most ancient human settlements in the Americas where the Muisca people used to live before the Spanish conquest, and the place where we found “The Number One Wonder of Colombia”.
From the hostel near La Candelaria we took a TransMilenio bus to Portal Norte (1,800 pesos= $0.70) and from there we hoped on a smaller bus to “Zipa” (5,000 pesos= $2.50). After an hour drive we found ourselves in a small picturesque town in the Eucalypt forests of the Andes. Narrow streets, some closed for car traffic; old houses with freshly painted doors and tiled roofs overgrown with moss.
We headed for the central plaza- a big plaza occupied by pigeons (like all the plazas in the world) with a few tall palm trees sticking out of the ground, their roots pushing the pavement up creating gentle hills of yellow cobblestones. The plaza was surrounded by two-story buildings with wooden balconies laden with flowers and old clay-tile roofs. The Municipal Palace with its Classic French architecture and Gothic elements, as well as the imposing Cathedral of San Antonio de Padua built between 1805 and 1916 in Classic Colonial style, were standing out.
We didn’t expect to find such a colorful neat little historical town with 300-year old houses declared National Monuments, set among the green hills of the Colombian countryside. We were immediately charmed by Zipaquira, even before we got to our destination- the Salt Cathedral, which is the chief reason why hundreds of visitors flock here each day.
La Caterdal de Sal
The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira declared “The First Wonder of Colombia” is one of the most unusual, most astonishing cathedrals in the world. It is built 200 meters underground inside the tunnels of an old salt mine, deep in the belly of a big salty mountain. Everything in this cathedral is made of salt.
The salt (or halite) deposits of Zipaquira were formed 250 million years ago, and were pushed up high above sea level with the formation of the Andes mountain chain. The Muisca people of Colombia were the first ones to take advantage of the rich salt deposits, long before the Spanish arrived in these lands. They were mining the salt and trading it for other goods with various other tribes in the region of the Andes.
Later, the European settlers began exploiting the halite deposits, digging tunnels in the mountains. In one of the mine shafts they built a small sanctuary for prayer and worship before each long day of heavy labor and danger under the ground.
In 1950, inside the mine tunnels, some carved by the Muisca people, begun the building of the big underground cathedral, which opened doors on August 15, 1954 and was dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners. But its location in an active at the time mine created some safety issues. The cathedral was closed and later rebuilt deeper, under the old one. The Salt Cathedral in its present state was completed in 1995.
After we bought our tickets, about $12, we waited at the gates leading down, in line with about twenty more visitors, for the next guided tour. We left behind the light of day and entered the under-earth starting in a cave-like corridor reinforced by large eucalyptus logs, with walls and ceiling covered in a thick layer of salt, like snow.
We walked down for a very long time stopping often, 14 times to be exact. On both sides of the main tunnel there were 14 chapels each containing a large cross carved out of the halite floor and walls, representing the Stations of the Cross of the last journey of Jesus, La Via Dolorosa.
After about half an hour we got to the cathedral itself at the center of a labyrinth of corridors, caves, shafts and balconies. It is monumental, 75 meters long with 18 meters high ceiling, four huge halite columns and capacity for 8,400 people. Here, amidst blue and yellow lights illuminating the rough salty walls, and the sound of Ave Maria, we found the largest underground cross in the world!
Before the end of this journey we joined a small group of enthusiasts who wanted to find out how the salt was being mined in the old times. We were given helmets with lights, we told a prayer to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, and we had to walk through some narrow low completely dark corridors holding on to a rope until we got to the place where a bunch of old rusty extremely heavy pickaxes were waiting for us. Ivo and Maya got to work straightaway and managed to dig out some halite from the walls of the mine. The miners in the old times were paid very little per kilogram of salt. And what we managed to dig out was not worth even a penny… We kept the little pieces of rock which we tasted to make sure they were salty (yes they were!) as souvenirs.
Back in the light of the day. It was cold and drizzling outside. We found a cozy little restaurant with a big fireplace and ordered sopa de costilla (soup with ribs) and a big portion of sausages with baked potatoes and salad- the local delicacy. A portion of grilled meat with sides, soup and juice costs between 3 and 5 dollars in Colombia and the three of us usually share two portions, as they are huge. I get full just with the soup.
We sat next to the fireplace smiling contently and while enjoying the hot spicy soup and the fresh sausages, Maya started telling us with excitement how she loved the Salt Cathedral, but she wouldn’t go in the mines all by herself (it would be way too scary) and how she can’t wait to build herself an underground Salt Cathedral in Minecraft.
I too liked the Salt Cathedral, more than I expected. I didn’t imagine such a huge underground labyrinth spanning for a few kilometers six stories under the surface of the earth, with so many dark shafts, corridors, rooms and crypts; so many details, crosses, statues and frescoes all carved out of salt! It’s a large scale work of art and an authentic historical monument to the people of the Salt Mountains, a journey we will never forget.Share